January 2016. The Aam Aadmi Party had decided to contest the Punjab Assembly elections due in February 2017 and had organised a rally at Muktsar. The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the main opposition Congress too organised rallies nearby.
The attendance at AAP’s rally, even by the local media’s conservative estimates, was double the participation at the SAD and Congress rallies put together. A beaming Arvind Kejriwal announced in Muktsar: “We will win 100 seats. But I want Punjab to give us all 117 seats.”
Later, when I asked him whether his party had peaked too early, Kejriwal was candid. “Sir, this is the first time I have come to Punjab. So far, my lieutenants were taking care of the campaign. Rest assured, the momentum will pick up further, in the next one year.”
End of the Road for AAP?
A similarly massive first rally in Goa three months later indicated Kejriwal’s intentions to work on a pan-India presence for the AAP.
“We may not win Goa, but if in our first attempt we can win four to five seats and assume the role of a power balancer, we will be more than content,” AAP leader Ashutosh told me as the campaign picked up in January 2017.
But on 11 March, when the Assembly results poured in, AAP was in for a shock. It not only drew a blank in Goa, but its nominees lost their deposits in 38 of the 39 seats it contested there.
Similarly, in Punjab, it could manage to win only 20 of 117 seats though the party had aspired to form the government. So, what really went wrong for AAP in the past one year?
Is it the end of the road for a party that two years ago was a beacon of hope for people in many northern Indian states? It’s significant because the party is struggling to run a city government in Delhi, where most of the powers are concentrated with the lieutenant governor and not the chief minister.
And Delhi is where AAP will contest the forthcoming municipal elections, besides an Assembly by-election after the resignation of Jarnail Singh. Besides, in the event of the Election Commission disqualifying 21 AAP legislators for holding offices of profit, the party might have to contest 22 Assembly seats.
Time for AAP to Take to the Streets
For a change, Kejriwal was unusually quiet once the Punjab poll results were out. Known for a tweet every half hour, there was no reaction from him for two full days. He just tweeted a congratulatory message for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On the other hand, Ashutosh wrote on a news portal: “AAP has been defeated before. Don't write its obituary. If the BJP could start from being down to two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984 to getting a full majority in 2014, we too will bounce back. We will now contest the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections.” However, he did not outline a road map.
In fact, it is now time for AAP to introspect and find out whether its organisational and leadership structures need to be revamped. It is also time for the outfit to reinvent itself, if and only if, it makes a genuine effort to learn from its mistakes.
One of the means at AAP’s disposal is its original USP as a disrupter of old politics. Instead of remaining prisoners of social media, its dedicated cadres and volunteers could, for instance, hit the streets.
Reliance on Delhi Cadre Backfired
Every time AAP loses an election – as after the Lok Sabha loss – Kejriwal was apologetic. During the 2015 Delhi elections, his recurrent pitch was: we have made mistakes, please pardon us. In his acceptance speech after winning 67 of 70 seats in Delhi, he reiterated, “I am not going anywhere. I will remain in Delhi, serving the people who reposed faith in me.” The Delhi euphoria soon bred optimism and, sensing an opportunity, AAP decided to enter Punjab and then Goa.
It is now emerging that AAP could not win the people’s confidence in Goa and Punjab because it relied too much on its Delhi cadre and leaders. And locals didn’t take kindly to ‘outsiders’ dictating terms to them.
How AAP’s Campaign in Punjab Fizzled Out
According to local AAP leaders, the Muktsar rally was overwhelming because, fed up with both SAD and Congress, Punjab’s electorate perceived AAP as the harbinger of hope.
In fact, the state had become a fertile ground for AAP with the party winning four seats and being runner-up in three others during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls – a credible performance – with 24 percent vote share. There were at least 10-15 applicants for ticket for each of the 117 seats and all of them were told to demonstrate their strength at the rally. This explains the crowd in Muktsar. But the campaign derailed when it failed to capitalise on the popular mood.
AAP ousted its state convenor Sucha Singh Chhotepur on charges of taking money for tickets. No concrete evidence was presented against him, which is why several local leaders quit AAP along with Chhotepur.
Two of its four MPs had already lost faith in Kejriwal and sided with Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav.
Next, the Navjot Singh Sidhu issue was poorly handled. Sidhu wanted to join AAP but the local leadership and central observers botched his entry. There was no dialogue between Kejriwal and Sidhu. It was claimed that Sidhu sought to be the CM candidate. But how is it that Sidhu joined the Congress without such pre-conditions?
Bearing the Brunt of ‘Outsider’ Tag
In Goa, AAP was dependent heavily on Christian voters, but they too deserted the party, reportedly on instructions from the church, to prevent a division of votes. The Christians voted en masse for the Congress.
According to AAP insiders, Kejriwal implicitly trusts a group of senior partymen who were instrumental in ensuring his victory in Delhi in 2013 and 2015. One such, Durgesh Pathak, was in charge of Punjab along with Sanjay Singh. Similarly, Ashutosh and Pankaj Gupta were in charge of Goa.
Pathak did initially accomplish a lot of ground work but later turned quite authoritarian. Since the AAP leaders sent from Delhi to Punjab trusted their colleagues who had also come from Delhi, they were treated as outsiders. The opposition cashed in on the issue. Kejriwal had to issue a clarification that not he but only a Sikh from Punjab would be CM if his party won. But the damage had been done.
Kejriwal Must Stop Relying Only on His Coterie
While Kejriwal was aware that militancy sympathisers partly funded some AAP nominees’ campaigns, he took no steps to check this. He was also aware that the party’s major support base constituted Jat Sikhs, mostly in the Malwa region. Hindus and Dalit Sikhs who are a bulk of the electorate were alienated from the AAP. The BJP and the RSS also transferred large chunks of their supporters to the Congress to seal AAP's fate.
An over-reliance on a clutch of party leaders appears to explain Kejriwal’s undoing in 2017.
Unless he breaks the shackles and does things differently, AAP's resurgence might remain a mirage.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @sharadgupta1. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)